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What Are Herbs? Classifying Your Herbal Garden

When it comes to plants, what exactly are herbs? While you may be able to identify the ornamental flowers and vegetables growing in your garden, herbs are a little trickier to classify. Learn about what makes a herb…well, a herb!

herb spiral

In this post, we will cover…

What is an Herb?

The short answer is that herbs are plants used for cooking, fragrances, medicines, dyes, and cosmetics. In popular culture, most people view herbs as something you grow or find at the grocery store to flavour food.

In herbalism, however, an herb is any plant you use for medicinal or therapeutic purposes.

Stephanie holding rosemary

The More Complicated Answer…

In reality, one plant can be many different things. While someone might view a dandelion as a weed, it’s a highly nutritious superfood and useful skincare ingredient.

Likewise, a rose is a beautiful ornamental perennial. Yet for centuries, it has been used to flavour food and as a perfume, while the rosehips from the plant are yet another superfood.

When I was writing Garden Alchemy, I ran into this very problem. I listed oat straw as an herb ingredient for the quick return compost accelerator recipe. When the editor returned the book with their notes, they said that oat straw was a plant, not an herb.

I had to go back and tell them that it was due to the definition of herbalism! The extract of oat straw is used to relieve stress and anxiety, so, therefore, falls under the classification of a herb due to its therapeutic properties.

All in all, the definition of an herb is up for debate. It’s all in the eye of the beholder!

Herbs Vs Spices

People get the most confused about the difference between herbs and spices. Spice and herbs are both used for cooking and therapeutic purposes, after all!

It all depends on what part of the plant is being used. Spices tend to be made with roots, bark, fruits, and sometimes seeds of a plant.

Meanwhile, herbs typically use the stems, leaves, and flowers of the plant, and in some cases, the seeds and seed heads.

Sometimes, a plant may be both an herb and a spice. For instance, cilantro (also known as Chinese parsley) is an herb when you use its fresh green leaves. But when you use the seeds, it’s referred to as coriander and is a spice.

Planting herbs in a wood box

Annual Vs Perennial Herbs

You can have either annual or perennials herbs. Perennials will die at the end of the growing season but return from the same roots in the spring.

Annuals only last for one growing season, dying once the first frost hits. You need to grow new plants and seeds at the beginning of each year.

Perennials Herbs

Here’s a quick reference of some of the plants I would consider perennial herbs due to their properties and uses.

Annual Herbs

Likewise, here are some popular annual herbs.

Understanding the Term Herbaceous

One other thing some new gardeners may get confused about is the word herbaceous. This term is completely separate from classifying a plant as an herb, so don’t get them mixed up!

A herbaceous plant is any non-woody plant. The plant completely dies back for the winter, but the roots remain underground, and the plant returns the following year. Peonies are a great example of this.

lavender plants in a garden

I hope that clears things up! Now that you know what a herb is, it’s time to harvest and dry the herbs and put them to work! If you have any more herby questions, leave them in the comments below.

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